The Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber
25 August 2011
by Dominic Alexander
The history of rubber is a history of sweated labour, environmental destruction, and repeated atrocities. Tully’s account not only provides insight into these horrors but particular moments of modern social history around the world.
John Tully, The Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber (Monthly Review Press 2011), 480pp.
What is a commodity? On the face of it, simply an object. Marx pointed out however that it is really ‘a very queer thing indeed, full of metaphysical subtleties and theological whimsies’. A commodity like rubber on the one hand contains all sorts of useful, non-reducible physical properties, and on the other, within a capitalist economy, is just the equivalent of a given quantity of money; it contains an abstract exchange value of a definite amount. Moreover, the individual commodity contains within itself all the natural and social processes which brought it into being as a discrete product, from the growth, in this case, of the rubber-producing tree, to its harvesting, transport and manufacture into commercial rubber.
In Marx’s words from Capital, which Tully quotes towards the beginning and at the end of this book, the commodity ‘mirrors for men the social character of their own labour, mirrors it as an objective character attaching to the labour products themselves, mirrors it as a social natural property of these things’ (quoted at pp.14, 20 and 359). The import of Marx’s words is demonstrated and explored in this thorough and detailed history of the rubber industry’s development across the world from the nineteenth century through to the present.
The history of rubber can be made to serve as a kind of history of capitalism over two centuries. Not only is the detail fascinating in itself, but seeing developments through the perspective of rubber allows all sorts of connections to be revealed that the standard frames of bourgeois history hide. The history of rubber is a history of sweated labour, environmental destruction, and repeated atrocities. Some of this, such as the horrors of the Belgian Congo, may be at least superficially well known, but Tully is able to unpack matters to show a deeper significance within the context of the rubber industry. In standard accounts, passages of horror and cruelty can appear as detached examples of the failings of human nature. They can even be passed over as simply unfortunate episodes in the development of human societies towards more modern and prosperous forms (read liberal and western). These comforting evasions are revealed for the illusions they are in the face of a complete account of this one industry. The extremes of injustice and atrocity are not unfortunate exceptions in the history of capitalism, but recur almost as regularly as the trade cycle….
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